Friday, 23 September 2011

Backwoods Gothic

From City to Country to City:
No Other, the Silverados and Two Sides To Every Story

Following the commercial failure of 1974’s No Other, his sprawling and ambitious tour de force, it seems reasonable to assume Gene Clark suffered a crisis of confidence, possibly even a breakdown of sorts, in the three years prior to the release of Two Sides To Every Story in 1977.  

With No Other, he manifested the potential that everyone knew he had in him; that had been evident since his days in The Byrds: he produced A Great Work.  It is a daring, brash album, cinematic in its scope and vision, filled with Gene’s incomparable, idiosyncratic, if occasionally impenetrable, poetry, and some of the most soaring, dramatic music heard this side of an opera hall.  Bombastic?  Over the top?  Hell, yeah.  That was the whole point.

No Other is the single greatest achievement from a former member of The Byrds.

And Gene wrote or co-wrote every song on the album.

But Asylum’s refusal to widely promote the album or sponsor a major tour – especially after Gene’s notorious confrontation with David Geffen in Dan Tana’s – effectively sealed the fate of Gene’s Grand Artistic Statement, and cast it headlong into the ignominy of the cutout bins.

A brief aside…
Imagine this fantasy scenario.
It’s 1975, and the title track from No Other has become a surprise midsummer hit, prompting a multi-legged stadium tour of North America and the U.K.   A handpicked assemblage of L.A’s best musicians and background singers backs Gene.   The album is lauded by critics and fans as Clark’s long-awaited masterpiece, heralded by everyone from old Byrds devotees to prog-rock aficionados.  Gene Clark signs a lucrative contract with Asylum and becomes a major star through the ‘70s and ‘80s.

As we all know, what actually transpired bears no resemblance to this (But if the idea of witnessing ‘Lady of the North’ wafting heavenward in the open air doesn’t give you goose bumps, you’re best advised to stop reading this blog right now).  In reality, Gene hooked up with two journeymen musicians, Duke Bardwell and Roger White, and, musically speaking, retreated from the glitz of the city to the comfort of bluegrass hill country.

There is something very heartbreaking (ah, but isn’t there always with Gene?) about the idea Gene Clark touring his masterpiece – not in limos and private jets, but in the back of a van, playing small dinner clubs.

And yet the Silverados period, notwithstanding his escalating intake of booze and drugs that marred some of the performances, was the moment at which Gene created a truly unique, if entirely non-commercial, sound.  From Byrds pop to the stark balladry of the White Light period and the glam-prog of the then recent No Other, Gene and the Silverados reconciled differences between ostensibly disparate musical styles.  To paraphrase Van Morrison, Gene, Duke and Roger got down to the real soul inside the very bones of the songs. 

This was an abrupt change in the direction of Gene’s music.  Spectorian bombast had transformed into bucolic simplicity; the alienation of city life led back to the earthy, mystical country of his childhood.  With this in mind, Gene’s then brand new composition, ‘The Daylight Line,’ spells out the story of his post-No Other disillusionment as clearly as a leaked diary entry:

I'd be home in the city but really that is not my place                              
I could go down in pity or leave and take a look at my face

Gene’s performances with the Silverados were anathema to No Other.  Think of how ridiculous it sounds on paper.  How could three guys reproduce what took $100,000.00 and a small army of L.A.’s session elite to capture in the studio?  This was tantamount to Springsteen touring Born to Run accompanied by kazoo and toy piano.

And yet somehow, in spite of Gene’s drinking, money woes and disinterested audiences, Gene and the Silverados gelled as a unit.  As the surviving recorded evidence attests, they recast every discrete period of Gene’s music into a unified, ebullient, yet haunting whole, to create what can only be described as backwoods gothic.

No small achievement that.

Neil Young built his career on sudden changes in style, but there was one big difference – he could afford to.  By 1975 Young had achieved considerable commercial success, both as a solo artist and as part of CSN&Y, and therefore had the luxury of screwing with bandwagon-jumpers by releasing Tonight’s the Night while they pined for another ‘Old Man’.  When you’re Gene Clark, a guy who hadn’t hitched his wagon to a mega-unit-shifting project for ten years, such a volte-face was another in a series of career-killing decisions.   The intended audience for Gene’s fusion of Appalachia and (for lack of a better term) “rock,” with its plaintive, at times wild, yodeling, tasty guitar pickin’ and folksy three-part harmony, did not buy records destined for the top 40.

Doubtless these very thoughts factored into Tommy Kaye’s fateful decision to unceremoniously turf the Silverados, and repeat the No Other formula by hiring slick studio pros. 

But listen to ‘Home Run King’ as performed by the Silverados.   Then play the studio cut.  Which one has more personality? It is as simple as that.  Studio sheen and faultless musicianship cannot compete with the kinetic energy achieved by three guys who had rehearsed together, travelled in a van together, eaten lousy road food together, and had, as a solid unit, played a series of low-paying, low profile gigs in smoky clubs.

Kaye’s firing of the Silverados was the country-rock equivalent of Chris Thomas suddenly bringing in Brian May, John Entwistle and Phil Collins to back up John Lydon on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.  It was a decision that effectively sabotaged Gene’s backwoods gothic statement.  For whatever reason, perhaps due to his plummeting sense of self-confidence, Gene let it happen.

In the end, the studio pros made no difference.  Upon its initial release in 1977, Two Sides To Every Story was eviscerated in Rolling Stone, courtesy of this notorious review:

To those who admire Gene Clark, Two Sides to Every Story is a heartbreaker—in the worst way. ("Is this the dullest album ever made?" was my original opening sentence. "Probably" would have been the second.) Lugubrious to the point of laughableness, the once-classy Clark creeps through a series of Gibranian ballads that is so Antonioni-slow the songs actually seem to stop. Dead. Like this. Bereft of either interest or ideas, this plodding work can only be described as California-liturgidical.

Interlarded among the endlessness are some lame bluegrass ("Home Run King," "In the Pines"), listless rock & roll ("Marylou") and the worst train song ever ("Kansas City Southern"). Producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye is a great help, offering an interminable supply of nothing but the moldiest clichés.

Actually, there is one clever phrase: "You're either/Just the newspaper boy/Or you're either Babe Ruth." How much for a late city edition, Gene? (RS 239)

PAUL NELSON




In terms of Gene’s post-1977 career, I have often referred to this review as delivery of the coup de grâce.  Never again would he be signed to a major label as a solo artist.

Tommy Kaye bears a certain amount of blame, for sure.  Whether hampered by cocaine burnout or late-‘70s L.A. ennui (or both), Kaye was unable to coax anything resembling spirited performances from the musicians.  Nelson was partially right: some of the tracks are plodding, but others, like ‘Hear the Wind’ or ‘Past Addresses,’ simply required a more muscular approach; more oomph from the players – more backwoods soul.  In some cases, a less morose, slightly quicker tempo, would have worked wonders.  The bones of a great album are there, but some combination of crucial decisions – involving everything from musicians to song selection – had a deleterious effect on the results.

But it was Gene’s inability to get past the failure of No Other that also contributed his undoing.  His obvious doubt in his own skills as a composer led him to record three covers, plus an ill-advised remake of one past glory (which presages the formula later employed on 1984’s Firebyrd: ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’).

Another brief aside…
Imagine a confident Clark entering the studio with the Silverados (augmented by keyboard player and drummer) in late 1976, early 1977.  Consider the attractiveness of this particular line-up, recording an album with this running order:

Side 1
Home Run King
The Daylight Line
What is Meant Will Be
The Wheel of Time

Side 2

Hear the Wind

Glib summation: Once a home run king himself, the failure of Two Sides To Every Story sent Gene packing to the minors posthaste.

But it’s only with benefit of hindsight that we may propound these theories about what happened to Gene, or second-guess what he should have done.  It’s likely he did not analyze matters as much as I have herein, and was simply trying to do the best he could to survive.  He might even laugh at a term like “backwoods gothic” (then again, he might have appreciated someone taking his music this seriously).  And who are we to judge?  Two Sides, even with all its flaws, still has moments of brilliance.  In places it is as moving as anything he ever wrote.  We ought to be thankful it’s being re-released.

In a world where you’re either just reporting the accomplishments of others (like a newspaper boy) or you’re the heroic achiever himself (like Babe Ruth), Nelson got it wrong in the vicious kiss-off line in which he compared Gene to the former. 
After the failure of his masterpiece, Gene’s punch-drunk ego was almost certainly near collapse.  But what Nelson failed to grasp is that even if one is no longer a home run king, it is a designation that cannot be taken away.  Even if the Babe strikes out at the bottom of the ninth, run one behind, two out, with a man on third, he can still claim to have achieved what others can only fantasize about.  In the end, he’s still remembered as a home run king.


From here on in, there would be no more home runs, no signing bonuses or lucrative 
commercial endorsements.  But for those who followed his career as it slid into the minors, there was still a series of doubles and triples yet to be heard from Gene Clark.


9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nice article! I must agree that the Silverados would have made Two Sides a much better album. Listening to their live verions of "Life's Greatest Fool". "The True One" and even "No Other" is a real treat. And "In The Pines", "Home Run King" and "Hear the Wind" have so much more energy and brio than comes through on the album.

david said...

Have to agree with the prior post. "Two Sides.." should have been titled "Two Slick", although that title could have been used for "No Other"( I'm not a fan of the production there either).I think some of Gene's best songs were left off "Two Sides",as the live tapes bear this out, and as well as better arrangements of the stuff they did use. In my humble opinion, TJK hurt Gene more than he helped him. One other point totally off topic, is the horrid artwork on "No Other". That did Gene no favors at all, espescially the photos of him in drag..YUK!
Just found your site and it's really fantastic.Is there anything we can do to get some of Gene's unreleased stuff out? Read your interview with Kai: seems he's not too interested in putting Gene's stuff out.Been a Byrds/Gene fan since '65.

paolo said...

ciao clarkophile, my name is paolo and i'm contributor of italian fanzine "late for the sky", i write to tell you about our newest issue, dedicated to gene clark.
is a 12 page special with reviews of his records, an interview with kai clark, a contribution from sid griffin, two italian translation of his songs, discography, contributions from chris hillman, cindy bullens, herb pedersen, john york and al perkins...
here is our link.

http://www.lateforthesky.org/organo-ufficiale/

i can send you a pdf of the special if you give me an email address....

ciao

paolo

The Clarkophile said...

clarkophile@gmail.com

Anonymous said...

Fine piece thanks

Andrew

ge said...

that Paul Nelson who died in '06 had a book published recently of his collected stuff! We wonder if he had no other positiver Gene takes??

The Clarkophile said...

Thanks Andrew. I appreciate it.

GE, no idea about Nelson's book. Anyone else have it?

Unknown said...

Hi,

First of all, it's nice to see a blog about Gene Clark. As a French fan, I don't find that many people I can talk to about his music. In the circles of my music fan friends, he remains largely unknown, although I do what I can to make them listen to him...

Anyway, "Two sides..." is a special album for me. I bought the vinyle (not so found about re-editions... !) when Gene was already established to my eyes as one of my favorite, if not my favorite, singer and writer. That might sound elitist, but I always secretly liked the fact that while my friends were endlessly talking about Dylan or Keith Richards, I was left with Gene Clark as a true hidden gem. It got to the point were his music became too familiar to me. Then, I purchased "Two sides...", long after "No other", "White Light", "The LA sessions", "Roadmaster", "Firebyrd" and "silverado 75". And it was a nice and gentle punch on my shoulder. It sounded fresh and different. Natural, not over-thought, not intellectual. It flattered my early love of 'roots' music. I probably appreciate this album more than the others because of this raw energy, its natural roughness. The reason I suddenly needed to buy it was "In the pines", a song I loved before, and love even more now thanks to Gene Clark. When the LP started spinning I though "What is this ?", then I sat and I enjoyed it, I felt like I was rediscovering my favorite artist. The same day, I left the LP at my parent's house and my father listened to it. He's more into Pink Floyd and stuff and usually hate that kind of 'roots' music. He said : 'Well, that's pretty neat !'. He heard it too, that natural, rough, sound. In the end, I would probably defend with more passion this album than any other by Clark. It's weird in a great manner. I love it !

Indigo Mariana said...

That's the first time I read that scathing review of Two Sides (I had heard about it), thanks for including it here. It's funny how when the album was re-released they had this to say: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/exclusive-listen-lost-gene-clark-classic-kansas-city-southern-20110701
(I never went by what Rolling Stone says anyway - they're like the Time Magazine of music for me.)

I get the feeling that Gene put his trust in Tommy Kaye on Two Sides and let him lead the way (for better or worse). There are some really good moments on this album, but I do think it could have benefited from a little more "oomph".

As for No Other - I always felt that either Silver Raven or From A Silver Phial could have been the singles, seems like those would have been the most "commercial". Was there ever a single planned for No Other? I could never understand why Geffen would let the album shrivel up and die instead of trying to recover some of that $100,000 and why it was much more of a thorn in his side than Bobby Neuwirth's (!!) album which I understand cost twice as much! Makes no sense to me. I feel like there's something more to that story. He had to have known that Gene wasn't exactly top 40 material.